Greenstaff battling to get the job done with ever tighter resources

Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 00:00

Peter Byrne and his crew at Balbriggan, like golf course staff nationwide, are busier than ever before

The early birds haven’t left their nests in search of worms by the time Peter Byrne, the golf course superintendent, is on the job each day at Balbriggan Golf Club. In summer time, he is on the course for 5am; these days, there is a bit of a lie-in ’til 7am. He has a lot of duties to perform in the time that daylight affords him and his crew.

Byrne – who has been in greenkeeping for over 30 years, including positions at Citywest (where he was part of the grow-in team) and Howth Golf Club – is among an army of greenstaff at courses around the country who must get the job done with ever tighter resources.

In what he calls “the boom times”, a not so distant memory, Byrne was part of a team of seven greenkeepers – augmented by a further two or three temporary staff in the summer months – who tended Balbriggan. “That’s gone,” he says of those times, his crew reduced to five staff. And, yet, he’ll tell you he is “lucky” on a number of fronts: one, that the course continues to use their own greenstaff rather than bring in contractors; two, that they have a good fleet of machinery which was included as part of the development plan when the course was modernised in 2009.

There is a mantra which Byrne adopts, and it is that “the course is the product”. It is his job – and that of his team – to ensure it is in the best condition possible, even with tighter budgets. “Tight, but workable,” he observes of the budgetary constraints. “Our budgets were cut last year, you have to work within that. It’s a reality and you have to deal with it. What I try to do is prioritise the greens, the tees, to keep them good. Everything else falls into place.”

Byrne is not a man for taking short cuts. When you broach the possibility of clubs sharing machinery, he is adamant it won’t happen on his watch.

“I totally object to it myself. It doesn’t work. How do you bring machines between two clubs? If it is brought to your neighbouring club and somebody breaks it, who is responsible? We have good machines and good staff to maintain the machines. Why send good machines to a lad down the road who hasn’t a clue?

“We’re very lucky in the lads we have. Everyone’s responsible for everything, but you take specific responsibility for the machine you drive. Signing off, dipping oil, the lads are very good. I give them time to do it, but it pays off. Our machines are like new still. Even five-year-old machinery is new looking. The lads take pride in it. I looked into that sharing, even buying chemicals together. It doesn’t work. No two greenkeepers maintain a course the same. There are products lads might use that I wouldn’t allow in the gate.”

Byrne, who has a BSc in Turf Management and who is currently furthering his education with a management course funded by the golf club, believes there are “a lot of greenkeepers stressed with budgets, who have been pushed down the route of using cheaper sprays. I’m conscious of the responsibility to my staff, to myself, the members and I won’t use them.”

He adds: “Greenkeepers before used to maintain greens, did no more. I go beyond that. I look at the science of it. I manage staff. Liaise with the members here. If there’s disease on the greens, I explain to members how it comes in and how we intend to remedy that. They’re paying my wages, they’re entitled to know that . . . I see myself as more than, let’s say, the old standard head greenkeeper.”

Rolling back the years Juniors 'the lifeblood' of the club

One of the major problems facing golf clubs is that of an ageing membership. Studies undertaken around the world – including a significant one by the GUI in 2008 – point to what is called “a lost generation” of golfers in the 24-44 age bracket.

In actual fact, that GUI study found that the average age of a male member of a golf club here was 49, whilst the ILGU average age was closer to 55-years-old.

With an eye to the future, Balbriggan Golf Club has responded by introducing a strong junior structure in the club.

Evidence of the impact is that the number of cadets in the club – aged from seven to 12 – has risen from 40 in 2009 to 90 this year.

Further proof of the positive impact made by the club’s juniors was their achievement in reaching the Leinster final of the under-15 inter-club matchplay competition in September where they lost out to Rathsallagh, following a play-off.

A good youth policy, as president Tom Walsh puts it, is “the lifeblood” of a club.

John Flynn, the treasurer, remarks: “First and foremost, it’s a members’ club – and it’s important to have youth coming through and, given the club’s family nature, we’re trying to promote husbands and wives and children. It’s the essence of the club going forward into the future.”

Another contributory factor to the successful youth programme is the addition of a club professional, with Nigel Howley and his assistant Rory Dervin bringing their expertise to bear.

“Up until six years ago, we’d probably have said it doesn’t really make any difference (to have a club pro). But it’s a huge thing to have. I didn’t realise how much use the members would make of the service Nigel provides until I saw it in action.”

And the links between generations at the club remains evident as 80-year-old Hugh McKenna made his way around the course for his daily round.

McKenna’s 12-year-old grandson, Luke Harris, is part of the emerging breed.

“He’s a good one,” says the proud grandfather.

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